Praying? Surely not in shul

By David Robson, October 17, 2011

There's a joke about getting a seat in shul on Yom Kippur. You may know it. A stranger approaches the man standing guard at the door: "Can I go in for a second. It's an emergency. I need to talk to my friend Mr Cohen."

"I'm sorry but you need a ticket," says the guard.

"Please, I'll only be a minute," says the stranger.

"Oh, all right then, you can go in… but don't let me catch you praying."

It's a good joke but it's not as simple as it seems. What constitutes praying? I've been doing Yom
Kippur for decades. I know the service pretty well, I read Hebrew fluently, I love joining in with the songs but I don't think I have ever prayed in my life.

Honest guv, I'm just reading the words and singing

I don't really know what it is, or how to do it. If the guard came up to me, grabbed me by the tzitzit and said: "I thought I warned you about praying," I would reply: "I'm not praying, honest guv. I'm just reading the words and singing along."

On Saturday, I was a guest of a friend at his shul. We arrived at nine and did the whole 10 hours without even moving. So you might say I was more in the market for praying than most. After all, how many people stay all day?

Look around most shuls between yizkor and neilah, you would think there had been a fire alarm. But maybe praying doesn't take very long if you know what you're doing. A lifetime isn't long enough if you don't.

I was just getting into the swing of things on Saturday, the spirit of the day was beginning to induce what conceivably could have turned into prayerfulness when - blast it - somebody blew the shofar and we all had to go home and eat. That's one of the things wrong with Yom Kippur - not long enough!

I suspect prayerlessness is very common but, like the level of intimacy within a marriage, it's a taboo and not much discussed with outsiders - far more comfortable in both cases to behave as if signing up, paying up and turning up is enough.

You may spend every Yom Kippur in the same place. I have been a wandering Jew.

Over the years I have been to "kittel 'n' shockel" establishments where I was the only one not in white and in rhythm. They certainly seemed to be praying there (I hope they are because they spend half their lives doing it).

I have been to places so liberal that wearing a yarmulke (sorry, skullcap) is viewed as a provocatively fundamentalist act.

A favourite rabbi died and I had to move on; another decamped to America. I had to cancel my membership at one place because the sermons were so stupid they provoked extremely uncharitable thoughts. And I was effectively thrown out of a shtibl I ended up in on a shul-crawl. They said: "Shul is for life. Not just for neilah."

I certainly have not always paid my dues. However, I can say in my defence, maybe a little sadly but hand on heart (ashamnu, bogadnu and so on), that I don't think anyone, including the Almighty, has ever caught me praying.

Last updated: 11:41am, October 17 2011